Elon Musk Won't "Save Twitter," Because Twitter Doesn't Need To Be Saved
The special relationship between twitter and the media is strong
Peter Kafka has a piece in Vox about how Twitter is fucked, not just because Elon Musk won’t be able to “save” it, but because no one can:
Yes, Twitter can be informative, entertaining, and enraging. For a subset of its users — and I’m in this one — it’s compelling, addictive, and periodically useful. And depending on the way you view politics, you might think, incorrectly, that it represents true public opinion.
That’s different, though, from being vital. And, worrisomely for Musk or whoever owns Twitter in the near future, there’s a very real chance that whatever importance Twitter does have is in permanent decline.
The basic argument is that Twitter is not as popular as other social media platforms and it’s been overtaken in terms of where the culture is really happening:
Perhaps the best realistic case for Twitter’s importance comes from writer Ryan Broderick, who calls it “the main website through which all culture travels” in America. But that’s not because everyone in America uses Twitter — Broderick is arguing that Twitter is simply the top layer of social media, mainly because it’s quite searchable, especially compared to TikTok (for now). It’s a guide to the rest of the internet, not a hangout.
“When I talk to people who are looking at the broader media ecology, it’s very clear that Twitter’s importance in this sphere ... has an expiration date,” the Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel told me when we talked about all of this on this week’s Recode Media. Twitter’s usefulness as a political tool had a decade-long run that peaked during Trump’s presidency, he theorizes. Now it’s likely going to give way to something new. “You can also imagine other politicians or other people coming up and using a different platform in a different way that makes it that important,” he told me.
Some of this I agree with, but I think Kafka and a lot of people are not necessarily giving enough credence to one reason Twitter will stay incredibly important to the way the media works.
Kafka poses a thought experiment:
What happens if Twitter goes offline tomorrow, for good? A bunch of us get some valuable time back, for starters. More seriously, some people lose an easy way to tell the world what they think, and a larger number lose a real-time window to the world.
Yes, these things would happen, but something else would happen: a huge number of reporters and journalists would lose their large direct platform audiences. Twitter did a very good job over the last decade getting journalists of all stripes to spend a lot of time on Twitter and the result of that is that journalists in general have a lot of followers on the platform.
Followers are an asset. There is a monetary value to them. But they are not a very moveable asset. I cannot exchange my 80k Twitter followers for 80k Instagram followers or 80k TikTok followers. I can encourage my Twitter followers to also follow me on other platforms or to subscribe to this substack but that is hard and it takes a long time and it never translates to one even exchange.
I have been doing this substack for a year and a half and I have 12k followers, which means 68k people follow my Twitter account but have not followed me to this substack.
That is true at every level of the media right now. Some people also have large Instagram accounts and large TikTok accounts but the average reporter doesn’t. They do probably have thousands of Twitter followers. Maybe not as many as me. And I don’t have as many as other people, but they have more than anywhere else.
To get people en masse to abandon those assets, you’d have to offer them some other equivalent. And that doesn’t exist at the moment. The media will continue to be dominated by Twitter because the people who work in the media have individual interests to not only continue growing their Twitter audiences but to protect the value of that audience.
Substack is an interesting way of thinking about this. My situation, where virtually all of my subscribers have come from Twitter, is not unique. One of the reasons I was willing to try a substack at all was because of my large Twitter following. Without that, I would have no obvious way of growing it.
But even if you aren’t doing a substack or something like that, the same sort of thing applies to almost every other job in media. Your personal ability to wield an audience makes you special. It helps you get book deals and go on television and it helps you get paid more money to be a staff writer because your readership is not 100% dependent on the homepage editor at your publication or the SEO gods at Google.
When people talk about Twitter’s importance they normally think about it in terms of the big huge accounts, like Trump or Elon Musk or Ezra Klein or Ben Shapiro, or Rachel Maddow, but the real reason Twitter is immovable is because of the working class media accounts. Shapiro and Klein and Maddow and blah blah are so big that they’re still going to be big if Twitter stops existing tomorrow. The copy editor with 3k followers, the local news reporter with 7k followers, and the CNN assistant producer with 10k followers won't.
And they’re the ones that actually make the media happen.
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